It's the mid-1990s, and this pilot fish gets a job doing PC and network support for a small manufacturer in the southwestern U.S., where a purchasing agent agent named Fred seems to have a hand in everything.
"Fred was a true Renaissance man," says fish. "He looked like he stepped from the front cover of a Louis L'Amour book with his impressive handlebar mustache and boots. He made beautiful Aztec jewelry on the side, he restored motorcycles and old trucks, he did carpentry work, and lately he'd taken a fascination with PCs.
"Fred was also deeply loved by everyone, and his boss was convinced he was a genius."
A month into the job, fish gets word that Fred is taking a month-long vacation -- and in Fred's absence, fish will take over Fred's purchasing system. With no idea what Fred's system is written in, he's nervous.
But the next morning, he follows Fred to a small office. There, the astonished fish sees a PC connected to three laser printers and four external modems, along with reams of printer paper.
And after a moment, fish knows what it is: a poor man's EDI system for sending and receiving purchase orders electronically. The modems receive faxes from vendors every morning. They're stored in different folders on the PC, then printed out on different laser printers and delivered to the other purchasing agents.
"It was the strangest thing I had seen up to that time, but...it did work!" fish says. "I sat stunned as he detailed what he did every morning, showed me his book of instructions and then gave me a spare key to the office.
"I immediately went to my boss and explained that the entire company was dependent upon a Rube Goldberg EDI system, and if Fred were killed in a car accident we would be in deep trouble."
Fred leaves the following week, and fish sits down to compose his most tactful memo ever. He praises Fred's impressive system, but says it's a shame it takes so much of Fred's time each morning.
With a $400 fax board, fish writes, he could configure a system to send faxes directly into everyone's email, leaving Fred free for other pursuits.
The boss likes fish's idea -- and by the time Fred gets back, it's up and running in the computer room, and Fred has been upgraded from his cube to the now-empty office.
"He was a little miffed at first, but did like his new office," says fish. "And once Fred saw my system in action, he was fascinated with it and taught his co-workers how to use it to send faxes."
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